Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Pentecost VIII – July 18, 2009
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
It is so good to be home.
Having slept in my own bed.
Eating sensible meals at sensible hours.
Being back again with those who know me well and love me still, including furry, four legged creatures whose only requirement is that I return their unconditional love.
I am realizing, more acutely now more than ever, that they, as lesser creatures of God, do that far better at unconditional love than the supposed higher, more intelligent life forms of God’s creation.
For those of you who may not know, for the past two weeks, I have been attending the triennial legislative gathering of the institutional Episcopal Church known as General Convention.
On any given day, there were 5 – 7,000 people here, including over 800 deputies, more than 200 bishops and, as Jonah once said of the people of Tarshish, “many who do not know their right hand from their left.”
The days are long – beginning at 5:30 AM to start with the first legislative team meeting at 6:30, to be at legislative committee sessions or hearings at 7:30 AM, to be at the media briefings at 8:45, to be at the legislative sessions at 9:30, to be at the daily Eucharist at 11:30, followed by various presentations and caucuses, before the legislative sessions begin again at 2 PM and end at 6 PM.
But wait – there’s more!
The evenings were often filled with more hearings, more programs, more caucuses, lots of lobbying and activism and various debriefings.
Often, I would crawl into my bed at 11, eat a bowl of cold cereal – sometimes with the luxury of milk, sometimes not – and turn the lights off at midnight, to dream, perchance to sleep. (Jon Richardson’s schedule was not much different from my own. He knows only too well of what I speak.)
As my sainted grandmother would say, “Oh, the things we do for Jesus.”
Perhaps you won’t be surprised, then, to learn that I hear the words of Jesus, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while,” as a real ‘welcome home’ to this little church in the heart of suburbia.
And while Chatham is not exactly deserted, I am suddenly glad for the normally low attendance of the summer.
It might also not be surprising to learn that, of the various themes in this gospel passage, I am compelled by the image of Jesus, who, coming ashore from the boat he was in with his disciples, and, in the words of scripture, “saw a great crowd; and he had compassion.”
Please hear me clearly: for all of the foolishness of the institutional church, all the word games and political strategy, all the fleeting moments of glorious clarity and the magnificent messiness that is General Convention, it is, at its core, important, holy work.
And . .and. . .and . . .there was a moment in Anaheim where The Episcopal Church was never more magnificently messy, more gloriously clear, more important, relevant and holy as it embraced and embodied the compassion that is at the core of the mission of Christ Jesus which did not take place inside Convention Hall but took place because of what was happening within it.
Through the organizing efforts of the local chapter of the Episcopal Economic Justice Network, we joined together with local folks to stage a Prayer Vigil and March with those who carry luggage, clean the hotel rooms, do the laundry and serve meals at Disney World in Anaheim, “the happiest place on earth,” who have been working for the last year without a contract and under the threat of having their positions cut to part time or having the health insurance benefit of their full time jobs claim $500 per month of their frozen salaries.
The Episcopal Church was out in force on Harbor Blvd in Anaheim in our march toward the entrance of Disney World, which, for the first time in the history of this city, closed down one side of the street in order to accommodate the March.
We, as a church, had gotten out of the safety of our ‘boat’ and were in the streets and with the people. We were there to march for justice, but it was our compassion for the people which compelled us there.
The demonstration ended with the clergy anointing the workers for the work of justice. I took my place in the line of clergy who stood waiting for the workers to come forward.
That didn’t happen.
Interesting how our arrogance can inform our posture.
So I asked a sister priest, Altagracia Perez to anoint me, which she graciously did. In that sacramental moment, I found the courage and grace to move forward into the mass of people whose faces were filled with a mixture of faith and fear.
It didn’t take long before I was surrounded by people – men, women and children – who suddenly seemed to be everywhere: tugging at my blouse and pulling at my skirt. I cannot put into words what it felt like to have people call to me, "Madre, Madre. Unteme! Unteme!"
I could feel people pressing in on my back and sides. I hardly knew where to turn next, but I took my time, looking deep into the eyes of each person - adult women, men and little children - and anointed them, in my faulting Spanish: “En nombre de Dios, de Jesuchristo y de Espirito Santo”.
"Gracias a dios," they said softly, thankfully. Funny how that works. I anointed them, but I was the one who was blessed. And, transformed. And, will never be the same.
I was instantly overcome with a variety of emotions and feelings – humility, privilege, foolishness, and profound awe – all of which sprang from an increasing awareness that the source of these human feelings came from a deep well of the compassion of Christ.
I am convinced, now more than ever, that mission is not only the best form of evangelism, it is the incarnation of compassion.
Mission is what you do to bring an anointing of the spirit of Jesus to those who need it most. And compassion is the holy oil of the spirit of Jesus.
Compassion begins with being moved by our own sense of being ‘other’ to be present to our own sense of need for healing.
Compassion for those who are hungry or thirsty, those who are in danger of losing their jobs begins by first recognizing our own hunger and thirst, and being aware of the great fragility of life.
Compassion begins with a passion to be certain that whatever we have suffered – or, whatever suffering is unimaginable to us – is not experienced by others, even total strangers.
We hear St. Paul’s words this morning to the ancient church in Ephesis:
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the corner stone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
That is the vision which General Convention calls us to embrace. It is the difference between being an institution and the corporate Body of Christ.
There is an urgency, a ‘now’ to our mission. The world has never been more dark or broken or hurting a place. The compassion of Christ has never been more needed. Now, more than ever, we need to be Christ’s representatives, Christ’s anointing, Christ’s healing presence in the world.
Now, more than ever, we need to be fed from the sacraments so that we might be sacramental presence in the world.
That work requires us to move past our own zones of comfort – to get out of the safety of our own little boats of home or church or national conventions – and make our way onto the shores of discomfort to be among the people of God.
This is the important work of the church. The frenetic work schedule of General Convention is designed to make us think that THAT is the most important work.
It is not.
This church building is often confused with being the center of important work.
It is not.
For me, compassion that finds its way into mission and ministry is the only work of the church that brings us any authenticity with the central importance of One whose Sacred Body we claim to be.
The mystery of compassion is that, in the process of trying to change the world for the better, it is we who are changed and transformed and will never again be the same.
As my sainted grandmother would say, “Oh, the things we do for Jesus.”
And I would add, “Oh, the things He does for us.” Amen.